Vinland

vinalndVinland is the story of a man who had a magnificent adventure when he was a boy, and lived and worked and dreamed in its shadow all the rest of his life.

This book is set in eleventh-century Orkney, and it’s a Viking book, though if I tell you that, it won’t give you the sense of the book’s trajectory at all. George Mackay Brown writes the story of Ranald Sigmundson, who as an eleven-year-old boy leaves his abusive father and travels with Leif Erikson to ‘Vinland’ — a green, fertile, timbered land where they encounter “skraelings,” Native Americans whom Ranald will never forget. On their way home, Ranald visits the King of Norway and is treated as a special guest. When he finally returns to Orkney, he goes back to his family farm of Breckness, to take up ownership and rescue his mother from a life of poverty. There he lives out the rest of his days, listening to the sea and longing for it, but never returning to it. At first, Ranald participates in the politics of the island, as various earls battle for preeminence and as Norway and Scotland push this way and that. But after a time, he retreats more and more from the world and even from his family, until it’s time for him to set final sail.

The prose of the book is simple, and after the voyage with Leif Erikson, it tells the story of an ordinary man. The doings of the earls — Earl Sigurdson and his quarrelsome sons (including Thorfinn) — are none of Ranald’s business, until they affect his taxes. But Brown shows a country in which personal loyalties, not just to earls or to larger nations like Norway, Denmark, and Scotland, but to whole ways of life, are changing before the eyes of men like Ranald. From the beginning of the novel, there is a persistent push away from pagan culture and toward the influx of Christianity. Ranald himself begins a pagan and dies a Christian. The viking way of life is also dying out: plundering up and down the coast is giving way to agriculture and solid merchant relationships. Change or die; change or you’re doomed.

This is a subtle, lovely little book, with quiet emotions and the ordinary poetry of the Orkney landscape. I think I would have been more impressed with it if I hadn’t just read the absolutely marvelous Hild, which takes place in the same century and deals with some of the same issues about the transition from pagan lives to Christian ones, and if one of my very favorite books weren’t Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter, whose protagonist is Earl Thorfinn. Both of those books are more complex and more gripping than this one. This book is definitely worth reading, but honestly, it just made me want to read those two again.

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Posted in Fiction | 3 Comments

A Kind of Intimacy

a kind of intimacyLike most of the known universe, I read (and enjoyed!) Gone Girl. But I think Jenn Ashworth’s A Kind of Intimacy is a better dark, disturbing sort of book. Gone Girl was the portrait of two very unpleasant personalities twining around each other and getting what they deserved in the end. But A Kind of Intimacy shows, bit by unraveling bit, what happens when a sociopath wanders into the lives of perfectly nice, ordinary people.

A real mess, is what.

The book opens with Annie leaving her former apartment, scene of an unknown unpleasantness, to make a fresh start with her beloved cat. Right away, there’s an awkwardness: her neighbor Neil believes she’s moving in with a husband and daughter, but Annie’s alone. Are the husband and daughter coming later? Are they living in London for now? Did the daughter die? Was the husband abusive? Did either of them ever exist at all? Annie’s stories change depending on whose friendship and sympathy she wants to elicit. The weird part is that, while she’s telling her different stories, she really seems to believe them herself.

Soon — in fact, immediately — Annie notices a special bond between herself and Neil. The fact that he doesn’t seem to notice anything of the sort, and is living with his girlfriend Lucy (who doesn’t like Annie at all) is only a minor obstacle. The thin wall between their homes is not a barrier, it’s a way of feeling closer as she listens to their conversations and their sex in the shower, and makes plans for the future. Meanwhile, she enlists the sympathy of as many people in the neighborhood as she can. It isn’t all of them.

This book was fascinating. Ashworth lets Annie’s history come out in bits and pieces, without anything ever being a giant shocking reveal. (It’s so refreshing to read a book that doesn’t have a ding-dang TWIST in it.) The most interesting part is the way we can see through Annie’s layers of deception and self-deception, the way we can pick up on clues from what the neighbors say or from external sources, and find some version of the truth (which, to be fair, is shocking enough.) All the while, Annie is caught up in her own story and doesn’t see the creepiness. This isn’t just true about Annie, either. The neighbors themselves all have some self-image they’re projecting, and others may see them differently than they see themselves. Annie, the sociopath, is just the most extreme version of this.

I loved the way Annie was always reading self-help books. So many of those are about just this: projecting some image of yourself that others will see. It’s as if Annie is trying to learn how to be a human.

Of course, all of us are learning how to be human. But the title of the book clues us in to Annie’s behavior. She’s constantly searching for intimacy, but she can’t experience it. She tries love, sex, friendship, motherhood, owning a pet, and more, and nothing satisfies her. Ashworth doesn’t use her emotional void as an excuse for her destructive personality — nothing could justify that. But she lets us see it, in the gaps between all the lies.

This was a terrific book, tense, gripping, interesting, and so well-written. I got completely caught up in Annie’s voice. A great book for relaxing with… if you can relax.

Posted in Fiction | 5 Comments

American War

Omar El Akkad’s debut novel is an unsettling and ingenious imaging of a U.S. Civil War in the late 21st century. The story follows the life of Sarat Chestnutt, born near the Mississippi Sea in the purple state of Louisiana. The country is divided, with the southern red states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia having broken off to protect their right to use fossil fuels. Florida is underwater. South Carolina is quarantined after a disastrous contagion spread through the state in an act of biological warfare. The U.S. Capitol has moved to Columbus, Ohio, because Washington, DC, is underwater. And the blues of the north are trying to take back the territory that calls itself the Free Southern State. We learn many of these details through historical documents that appear between the chapters, but most of the book focuses on the story of Sarat herself.

As a border state, Louisiana is not entirely loyal to either side, but its people are in a constant state of fear of each other and of outsiders. Sarat’s father has been hoping for a permit to enable him to move the family north, but his death causes the family instead to flee to a refugee camp in Georgia. Only 6 years old, Sarat ends up spending most of her childhood in the camp, along with her twin sister and her older brother. She’s taken under the wing of a mysterious man who’s impressed with her toughness, and when tragedy devastates the camp, she turns to him for a way to fight back.

Akkad cleverly weaves together elements from U.S. history, politics, climate science, and warfare to create a world that feels alien yet entirely familiar. It’s not our world, but we can see the shadows of our world inside it. It’s a repetition of history, flipped around in places, but not so different from the world we know. It’s just that the U.S.’s place in it has changed. All of that is very clever, and I was fascinated to see how all the parts of it worked.

But where the book really got to me was in how it worked on my sympathies. I think it’s clear from the start that Sarat is on the wrong side of history. The book is narrated by a historian, looking back. The war is over, and the country is one again. Although the divide in the country was not over something as obviously evil as slavery, the Free Southern States were insisting on maintaining a right to use fossil fuels that contributed to the climate change that swallowed up much of the country with floods and turned what’s left of Virginia into orange-growing country. Sarat can’t even imagine a place where you aren’t hot all the time.

As a reader, I knew Sarat was in the wrong. And it’s evident early on that she will act on her wrongness, perhaps catastrophically. Yet, in the moment, at each step, her choices made sense. As a child, she is innocent of the causes of war. As a young adult, she is a victim. As a grown woman, she is vengeance. She has cause for anger, yet… yet…

This is a book that compels the reader to have sympathy for someone who commits evil. But, as the same time, it doesn’t exonerate the evil doer. She is a person capable of loving and being loved. She is also capable of becoming death. It doesn’t allow us to keep to the idea that only monsters commit evil. This is what war does. This is what pain does. This is what anger does.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 7 Comments

The Heirs of Columbus

heirs of columbusBy this time, I’ve read more than a handful of Native American novels, several of them from the Native American Renaissance during the 1960s. There’s a thematic similarity to the ones I’ve read from that time period: they are often coming-of-age novels, in which a young native man struggles with his dual identity as a member of his tribe and a citizen of the United States.

Gerald Vizenor’s The Heirs of Columbus is… not that.

I would love to explain and discuss this entire book with you, but it is too much. Let me try to give you some part of the gist of it:

The ancient Mayans, long ago, sent explorers to Europe. Christopher Columbus was a descendant of theirs, so when he went to the “New” World he was actually being drawn back to his ancestral home. (This, of course, subverts the entire Columbian discovery narrative and turns it on its head.)

Today, the Heirs of Columbus — a group of his descendants in the New World — have created a sovereign nation on the border between Canada and the US. They have three boats (the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, of course), one of which is a floating casino. More importantly, they have built a pavilion where they will use Columbus’s remains to create gene therapy in order to heal the thousands of indigenous children who have been born wounded or sick by living in this toxic world. But gene therapy — even gene therapy that goes back to the ancient Mayans and has survivance in its chromosomes — is not enough for healing. The Heirs will also tell the children healing stories, the stories that are in their blood, and use… er… manicures to heal them.

Okay, I know, but I’m not done yet.

The book contains many amazing episodes. There is a court hearing about who can own human remains, such as those of Christopher Columbus — or any piece of the natural world, like trees or water. There is a flashback to Pocahontas, and her last days in England with John Rolfe. There’s a murder, and a daring rescue. The characters are mongrels and crossbreeds and panthers and hand talkers and radiant blue puppets and fierce women, besides the ordinary ones like lawyers and judges and shamans and Sephardic Jews.

There. There’s so much more, but that gives you some of the ambiance.

This is a postmodern novel, and the pieces it’s made of are not what I was expecting at all. Some of it is pure fantasy, like the puppets. Other things are absolutely real, like the hand talkers. Other things…? I had to guess. Vizenor makes reference over and over again to “panic holes,” for instance, which from context are holes you shout your stories into. Are those real? According to the Internet, he made them up, but they sound like something I need. Other parts are quoted directly from research sources; still other parts are farce. And the humor is trickster humor, which is different from European/American satire. For Vizenor, the trickster is language and imagination, not morality, and certainly not theory. The book is full of strange sideways jokes and references I caught on the fly.

There’s a repetitive rhythm to the style, as well. Vizenor repeats the same phrases many, many times: “stories in the blood,” “blue radiance,” “hand talkers,” “survivance,” “crossbloods.” After a while, it becomes almost a kind of meditative chant. With so many strange, marvelous things happening in the story, it’s grounding once you get used to it.

This book wasn’t anything remotely like what I expected, and in the end it was eerily beautiful and full of hope. The healing of the children in this strange sovereign pavilion between two colonialist nations — healing through science, stories, and manicures — almost glowed with weird love. I want to read it again and see what happens to me this time.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 9 Comments

Await Your Reply

await your replyI didn’t know what to expect from this book when I picked it up. I went through nearly a decade believing that Dan Chaon wrote horror novels, and then I saw that he’d won a Pushcart Prize and had been a finalist for the National Book Award, so I revised my ideas about him towards literary fiction (whatever the heck that is.) Then I read a short story of his in Peter Straub’s collection Poe’s Children (subtitled The New Horror) and revised again. And then I read Await Your Reply. Whatever genre this is — and I still don’t know — this was a good book. It was suspenseful, twisty, unexpected, smart, and dark. I’m not sure what it was, but whatever it was, I liked it.

This novel is made up of three strands. In the first, a college student named Ryan gets some very unexpected news: his “uncle” Jay is actually his father, and his parents adopted him at birth. Existential crisis sinks in (and he wasn’t doing so hot this semester anyway) so he leaves college to go live in the Michigan woods with Uncle Jay and learn what Jay calls the “ruin lifestyle” — something illegal, Ryan is pretty sure, something about identity theft, but at first he doesn’t ask too many questions.

In the second strand, a lonely man in his thirties named Miles Cheshire is in pursuit of his paranoid, possibly schizophrenic twin brother Hayden. He’s been doing this for about a decade, and it’s telling on him: he knows objectively that Hayden is delusional and even dangerous, but he can’t quite convince himself that all of Hayden’s conspiracy theories are wrong. I mean, what if Goldman Sachs really is out to get him? What if there really was a giant tower in the Arctic? Hayden is clearly cleverer than Miles, and it skews the data: “Oh, spare me,” Hayden says at one point. “Is that what Mom told you? That I became a so-called schizophrenic because I couldn’t handle Dad’s death? I know you don’t like me to cast aspersions on your intelligence, but really. That’s so completely simple-­minded.”

In the third strand, a high-school girl named Lucy leaves her Ohio town with her history teacher, George Orson, headed for (she believes) wealth and romance. Instead, George takes her to a Bates-motel-reminiscent hotel on a dry lake in Nebraska, where they wait for some mysterious deal to work itself out in the Ivory Coast. Lucy is at the same time naive and jaded; she wants her new life to be shiny and perfect, but she also holds it up to the light looking carefully for flaws. And oh, she finds flaws.

Chaon braids these strands together carefully, chapter by chapter. At first you don’t see how they might come together, and then clues start to appear. By a third of the way through the book, I had an idea (which turned out to be about a third right.) As the story got darker and more complicated, I got more and more hooked. I didn’t see the whole picture until the last page, and I’m still not sure I picked up all the clues. This book is engaging, menacing, and beautifully structured, and it packs a wallop.

One of the things I really liked about reading it was that Chaon puts references to other authors — oh, certainly in every chapter, but nearly on every other page. I caught references to Shirley Jackson, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Stephen King, Robert Louis Stevenson, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, HP Lovecraft, and others — and there are sure to be many I missed. All those little gestures are acts of love. It’s always so enjoyable to see them.

Those of you who have read this author, what else would you suggest I try? I like short stories, so I’d be willing to try those. Or You Remind Me of Me? But Await Your Reply was so satisfying, I highly recommend it to those who like a good… whatever this was.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 8 Comments

Delusions of Gender

We’ve all heard the stereotypes. Men are like …. Women are like …. And it starts early, with the assumption that gender differences are inherent and immutable. In Delusions of Gender, psychologist Cordelia Fine methodically (and sometimes snarkily) picks apart studies claiming that gender differences are hard-wired, even before birth.

The book begins with a discussion of why these gender stereotypes matter—and how they often put women at a disadvantage. Fine spends a lot of time on the notion of stereotype threat, in which people perform poorly on tests when they’re told that people in their identity group (gender, race, etc.) perform poorly. Interestingly, as I was reading this section, I also happened to listen to a Radiolab episode about the problems researchers have had reproducing the effect found in these studies. The episode doesn’t debunk the studies exactly, but it did give me pause when it came to thinking about them.

However, when it comes to Fine’s book, that’s not a big deal because the meatier and more interesting content comes in her discussion of brain studies related to gender. She explains the flaws in many studies that claim to have found differences in male and female brains. Often, these studies are too small to mean much when it comes to larger populations. And studies that don’t show differences don’t get reported.

Even worse, some brain studies employ a circular logic. We know very little about how brains operate, and if researchers see a difference in the brains of their male and female subjects, they may assume that those differences relate to preconceived notions about how men and women are different. Women are more empathetic, so the sections of the brain that light up more in women must govern empathy. Fine argues that we simply don’t know enough about what’s happening to make that link.

In a particularly entertaining chapter, she picks about the work of Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain. Fine goes through the references of a few pages of her book, indicating how Brizendine misrepresents the claims she makes. It’s an instructive example of why we should be careful of putting too much stock in authoritative-sounding research, even with references cited, if we aren’t digging into the research behind it. (Of course, we don’t all have time or resources to dig into the research like that for every book we read, but it’s instructive just the same—and those lessons could apply to Fine as well.)

One of my favorite sections takes on the complaints of parents who say that they’ve raised their children without stereotyping, yet those children still gravitate toward the toys that fit the stereotypes. (Girls playing with pink princesses and boys playing with trucks.) Fine posits that it’s well-nigh impossible to shield children from gender-based distinctions. Parents may subconsciously and unintentionally treat sons and daughters differently. And even if they don’t, others will. It’s inescapable. And those early experiences of difference do end up shaping the brain.

Lots of people I know, including Jenny, have read and admired this book. It’s good! Having read a lot about it, I didn’t find it especially fresh, but I did think it was well argued, and I liked that Fine openly calls out preposterousness when she sees it. There’s a lot of preposterous pop science to call out in this area.

Posted in Nonfiction | 15 Comments

Ivanhoe

ivanhoeYOU GUYS. I read Ivanhoe and it was the most amazing thing. Walter Scott was extremely popular in his day and had legions of adoring fans and was invited to a private dinner by the Prince Regent so they could discuss his books and was very influential on other authors and I CAN SEE WHY. This book, which takes place in 12th century England, not long after the Norman Conquest, is a thriller. It is a roller coaster ride. It has everything you want in it (and a few things you don’t) including knights, jousts, disinherited sons, brave fair ladies, archery contests, Robin Hood, Richard Lionheart and Bad King John, a jester who can’t shut up, last-minute rescues, resurrections, English-French hostility, and lots of ballads. There is no time to catch your breath. It just goes from one amazing scene to another. For those of you who don’t like spoilers, stop here. For those of you who don’t mind them or have already read it, AHOY.

The first thing that smacks you in the face about this book is that Saxons=Good and Normans=Bad. All the Normans are nasty, cruel, oppressive, and fond of excessive frippery, whereas all the Saxons are kind-hearted and true (if perhaps a little crude in their manners.) This is complicated slightly by the fact that Good King Richard is Norman, but since he’s the only Norman who isn’t bigoted against the Saxons, we let it slide. The arc of the novel doesn’t allow us to gain any appreciation for the Normans at all. What it does is to allow a rare opportunity for Saxons to best Normans in battle, and then reluctantly bow to their new Norman sovereign, once they’ve proved they’re as brave, strong, and chivalrous as their conquerors. I wonder what was going on in England at the time. Ivanhoe was published in 1820, so Napoleon had abdicated just six years earlier. Anti-French sentiment was likely still pretty high. Still, the actual Norman conquest is still a sore spot?

The plot is thick with excitement. We go from a joust (which reminded me of nothing so much as the Super Bowl, since it takes place in a little valley lined with cheering onlookers, and the narrator takes pains to notice that the women, who you would think wouldn’t like such a bloody sport, are cheering just as much as the men) to an archery contest which Robin Hood wins handily, to a battle to a scene where the Black Knight is singing rude songs all night in Friar Tuck’s hut. Then more battles, with grievous wounds and rescues and mysterious healing. Then there’s a fabulous scene where we discover that an old Saxon woman, Ulrica, was captured when she was young and forced to work for the Normans. Naturally the Saxons now despise her and think she should have killed herself rather than work for them (even though she was forced into it and raped and so forth.) So Ulrica swears REVENGE and she goes off and actually LIGHTS THE CASTLE ON FIRE. And there’s an amazing climactic scene where she’s standing on the battlements (!) while the castle is burning down, (!!) with her white hair blowing around her, (!!!) singing a revenge song in Saxon about Hengist and Horsa (!!!!!) Does this remind you of anything (Jane Eyre, Rebecca, etc etc etc)? It is the best thing EVER.

Maybe the most interesting thing about the book is Scott’s treatment of his Jewish characters. There are two: Isaac of York, a moneylender, and his daughter Rebecca. I found this theme, which runs throughout the book, to be fascinating. The narrator mentions frequently that people in 12th-century England were bigoted and unjust to Jews, and he shows it: everyone, even the best characters, treat Isaac and Rebecca like garbage. If they want something from the moneylender, they are distantly polite, but they all obviously think that at best the Jews live on another, lower plane and are lesser beings. The worst characters are, of course, far worse: they hurl slurs and seize the chance to stalk, harass, and even torture these people, hoping to gain something if possible.

Isaac and Rebecca are painted very differently. Isaac is just slightly more than a Jewish caricature. He’s avaricious and grasping, so worried about money that at times he forgets about his daughter. He’s timid, too. But Rebecca! She may be the strongest character of the entire novel. She’s chaste, modest, strong, intelligent, wise, compassionate, and kind. There’s a scene in which the villain, a renegade Templar knight named Brian de Bois-Guilbert (can you GET any more Norman?) has approached her to take her as his mistress. She has refused him several times, but he advances to take her by force. Rebecca sizes up the situation, then springs into a high tower window. She is utterly fearless for her life, but she won’t brook dishonor. Stunned, Bois-Guilbert swears he won’t touch her — and he doesn’t. Offered several chances to convert, Rebecca holds to the teachings of her ancestors, and to her faith in a God who made both Jew and Christian.

With all this, though, Rebecca and her father are the Other. She wears “oriental” robes, and there are cushions on the floor in her home, instead of chairs. She has mysterious healing arts that no one in England understands. Eventually she is accused of witchcraft. Why should any of this be, since she was brought up in England and speaks English? Because she is a “different race” and “has no country.” Scott was clearly trying to point out injustices toward Jews, and successfully made a wonderful Jewish character, but there’s still not the subtlety and deep understanding that George Eliot would show a few decades later in Daniel Deronda.

This novel was extremely influential, and inspired a wave of interest in medievalism and the Gothic. In fact, you can see its impact later still — if any of you have read Edward Eager’s books, Ivanhoe shows up as one of the main influences. Knight’s Castle is essentially based on it (and on one of E. Nesbit’s books) and it also shows up in Half Magic. Which is how I wound up knowing Ivanhoe before I read it. And you probably have, too. This book was fantastic — exciting, interesting, funny, unexpected. Definitely recommended, maybe for this winter break.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 31 Comments

The Water Knife

It took me a while to get into this book by Paolo Bacigalupi. The story follows three separate characters, each one dealing with a different aspect of the calamitous water shortages in the southwestern U.S. Angel is a “water knife,” employed by the head of the Nevada Water Authority. His job is to make sure that her water rights are protected so that Las Vegas can survive. Lucy is a Phoenix journalist, charting the violence and destruction as water shortages tear the city apart. Maria is a refugee from Texas, barely eking out a living in Arizona and hoping to find a way north.

The world of this novel is brutal, and it brings home just how essential water is to survival and what people might resort to if it were to become truly scarce. The scenarios Bacigalupi imagines feel plausible, as he builds on current trends around corporate ruthlessness and disdain for refugees. And it is hard to read. There are scenes involving torture that almost caused me to put the book aside. Torture is something I find especially difficult to read about or watch, and, although Bacigalupi doesn’t depict every moment, it’s graphic enough to be unsettling.

But my main struggle with the book was with my difficulty getting a handle on how the world of the novel works and with getting a sense of the main characters. Although I think it was valuable to show different aspect of life in this world, it made it more difficult to settle into the story and the characters.

However, once the three characters’ stories start to come together, around halfway into the book, the story picks up steam and became hard to put down. At this point, many of the side characters who surrounded the main characters fall away, and the three main figures become the focus. I started to have reason to care about their fates and to worry about how everything might work out. The suspense builds and loyalties shift right up until the book’s final moments, with a ending that is troubling yet satisfying all at once.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments

Who Could That Be at This Hour?

who could that beI love Lemony Snicket’s books. I devoured the Series of Unfortunate Events, and thanks to a generous cousin, I even own one of the books in French, which is as delightful as you might imagine. Their combination of gloom and basic decency, their devotion to bringing some sort of order and compassion out of evil and chaos, their unexpected, rather adult sense of humor that is nevertheless based on a child’s experience, make them — I think — Novels for Our Times.

So when I discovered a different Snicket series (so far only lightly connected to the SoUE — but I have Theories), I sprang upon it. The series is called All the Wrong Questions, and the first volume is Who Could That Be at This Hour? In it, Lemony Snicket himself is the 14-year-old narrator and main character. He has received a peculiar education (the details of which we are not given) and is now sent to be the apprentice of one S. Theodora Markson in a town called Stain’d-by-the-Sea. Markson and Snicket are asked to retrieve a statue of a nasty legendary creature called the Bombinating Beast from one local family and restore it to another. Easy, right? WRONG. There is much more going on than meets the eye, including kidnapping, theft, betrayal, lies, impersonation, bumbling local law enforcement, and the always-unpleasant question, “Where is that screaming coming from?”

This book was entirely enjoyable. It was strange and menacing and full of cliffhangers, but it was also extremely funny. My favorite thing about it was that it was packed with literary references, some so obscure that children would never get them. There are two teenage taxi drivers (their father is sick) named Bouvard and Pecuchet Bellerophon. There are several scenes in which Lemony Snicket is passing the time and picks up a book. I loved them all:

I was in the mood for something I had read already, and for an hour I sat in my usual spot and read about someone who was a true friend and a good writer who lived on a bloodthirsty farm where nearly everyone was in danger of some sort.

Or the part where he tells Bouvard and Pecuchet that The Long Secret is better than the one that comes before it. It made me want to read them both again and decide for myself. Any book that makes me want to read other books is a good book in my book.

I can’t wait to read the others in this series. Lemony Snicket, may your shadow never grow bulkier.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction | 4 Comments

Redemption in Indigo

redemption in indigoKaren Lord’s debut novel Redemption in Indigo is… kind of a mess, to be honest. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be, and it’s awkward in places, and I’m not crazy about the ending. But it is the most sprightly, fun mess I’ve read in quite a while, so I forgive it.

Take the beginning, which retells a Senegalese folk tale about Ansige the Glutton. In this version, Ansige is the husband of Paama, the book’s main character, but we spend a long time dwelling on him instead of her: his insatiable appetite, his suspicion that others are trying to get his food, his unethical willingness to cheat and steal to get more. There is no clear reason why we spend so much time on Ansige, as he plays virtually no role in the main part of the story. After about forty pages of his antics, the book dusts off its hands and moves on to the meat of the story, leaving Ansige behind and leaving the reader thinking… huh? Yet the story is told with humor and spice, and Paama’s view of her husband’s mortifying compulsion is compassionate and graceful. Structurally and narratively it makes no sense, but it’s fun to linger while we’re there.

The rest of the story is similar. It has the feel of a fairy tale, in which djombis (something like spirits or minor gods) give Paama something called the Chaos Stick, an item that can govern the forces of chance and patterns. They think she can wield it better than its original owner, a powerful indigo-skinned djombi who has become indifferent to human suffering. But the original owner wants it back, and must convince Paama that he deserves it.

There’s a lot going on in this book, including a delightful convent of women who help Paama, an accidental romance between a poet and a snotty older sister, cooking so good it is almost magical, and a peculiar epilogue that felt tacked-on and a little heavy-handed to me. Again, the narrative structure is kind of all over the place. But the voice is wonderful, with a storytelling narrator guiding our reading. At one point, a trickster djombi in the shape of a giant spider is fooling two of Ansige’s men into leaving him on the road:

I know your complaint already. You are saying, how do two grown men begin to see talking spiders after only three glasses of spice spirit? My answer to that is twofold. First, you have no idea how strong spice spirit is made in that region. Second you have no idea how talking animals operate. Do you think they would have survived long if they regularly made themselves known? For that matter, do you think an arachnid with mouthparts is capable of articulating the phrase “I am a pawnbroker” in any known human language? Think! These creatures do not truly talk, nor are they truly animals, but they do encounter human folk, and when they do, they carefully take with them all memory of the meeting.

A lot of the book functions like this, with sly double references to rational explanations and spirit-world explanations. Take your pick, Lord says. But we know the truth.

I enjoyed the telling of this fairy tale, even if I couldn’t quite get into it all the way. My understanding is that she wrote it in a fizz of inspiration during one year’s NaNoWriMo, and I could believe that. I haven’t read either of her other books. Have any of you?

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments